Kogler’s Labyrinth

Jean-François Chougnet , 2008

In a space conceived by Peter Kogler, what should you call that which you “see”? Whatever the language, the words “patterns”, “motifs”, “Motive” come to mind, the ambiguity of the term provokes a misunderstanding, and Peter Kogler’s work finds itself associated with something it is not: ornament or decoration. Kogler, profoundly inspired by architecture, often refers to Ornament and Crime, a 1908 essay written by Adolf Loos (1870-1933), and translated into English in 1913 before being published by Le Corbusier in L’Esprit nouveau. Loos stigmatizes the “immorality” of ornament, defining it as “degenerate” and announcing its inevitable demise. “I made the following discovery, which I passed on to the world: the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use. I thought by doing so I would bring joy to the world: it has not thanked me for it. People were sad and downcast. What depressed them was the realization we could no longer create new ornament.” #1#.

“And we made our way sadly around the showcases, ashamed of our impotence.”#2# Peter Kogler is no more aggrieved than Loos to hear about the portended, though ever delayed, disappearance of ornament.

In a studio whose inhospitable appearance belies its studied comfort, Peter Kogler pursues a thoughtful and almost clinical project. Friendly, not demagogic, he sharpens the interest of his listener by explaining—at first without demonstration—his intellectual and artistic undertaking. Whether performance or monumentally scaled work, his well-conceived project fits as easily into the urban environment as into the more intimate space of a room, or a staircase. In order to elucidate his method, Kogler brings out the models for his pieces. We discover his conceptual principles, his fastidious care in realization, his attention to the details of space. Peter Kogler conserves almost obsessively, archiving the little theaters and their dramas, created according to the rhythm of commissions, situations, and his own artistic preoccupations. Faced with this world in miniature, we can only be seduced by the artist’s intransigence and rigor. Testimonials to works in the making, placed side by side, these models bear malicious witness to the trajectory of their author and his inspirations: cinema, for example, with allusions to his favorite directors. The scenes that influenced him take their place next to his creations, in a kind of permanent discourse. The craftsmanship of these models contrasts strangely with the clinical cleanliness of the studio and reminds us that ultimately all technology, no matter how developed, starts with manual work. Handmade models and computer screens cohabit in perfect harmony.

Peter Kogler offers his public a personal vision of the world that resembles a technological approach to a city of the future. Interlacing of gigantic brightly colored tubes, digitalized patterns, the use of new media and sophisticated digital techniques: a computer program leaves nothing to chance and, in an almost obsessive way, multiplies figures so enlarged that they become nightmarish, like the ant multiplied in such number and enlarged by such proportions that it inspires a kind of horror in the person who looks or steps upon the representation on the floor. We could easily be disturbed by this cold vision of a standardized society, metaphor for the social network so present in the world of tomorrow, if we did not wonder whether this is not precisely the pitfall to be avoided. Faced with this whirlpool of forms and colors, the player-spectator participating actively in the “tableau” is alerted by the artist, who insidiously reminds him of the heavy shackles of the past and the forced march toward the future.

At the beginning of his career, Kogler had a penchant for performance (he likes to recount how, during his first shows, he welcomed the public performing a headstand next to a palm tree); we infer that he desires to include the human body in his investigations. An instrument of the work, or at least of the communication of the work, silhouettes of characters hold their place. In one of his pieces, a female dancer improvises in front of a wall covered in abstract motifs. The play of light integrates her with the visual elements surrounding her, and she becomes a kind of living instrument of abstraction. Like other artists of his generation, Peter Kogler delves for inspiration within the American avant-garde. If there is an artist who counts for him, it is Lawrence Weiner.

It is easy to understand Kogler’s fascination with the 1968 “Statement of Intent” in which Weiner develops an original approach to the relationship between the work and its space:

Though he wrote about Weiner, David Batchelor’s analysis applies to Peter Kogler as well: “The site doesn’t so much receive the work as the work receives a voice from the site.”#3# One might say that Weiner’s works are not so much “site specific”, as “site related”, that is to say, conceived strategically or adapted to place and circumstance.
One of Lawrence Weiner’s works proclaims: BITS & PIECES PUT TOGETHER TO PRESENT A SEMBLANCE OF A WHOLE#4#. Peter Kogler’s “Bits & Pieces”, which are ants, convolutions of the human cerebrum, or tubes, are not abstract signs per se; they solicit the desire for narration or interpretation. The intent to generate signs that acquire their autonomy because they are able to invest different meanings has been at the heart of Kogler’s artistic practice since his early works. The convolutions that fascinate Kogler are the mark of the gray substance on the outside of the brain, that substance of the cellular body of neurons, that is to say the place where the electrical data are received, treated and integrated before a response is emitted. It is easy to understand how the artist is interested in the reproduction and repetition of this point of reception and emission. From the artistic point of view, this has been an obsession since the Renaissance, to the point that some scholars have found affinities between the Sistine Chapel representation of the creation of Adam and the form of a brain that Michelangelo might have slipped in subliminally. The ant, known for its diligence and its highly organized social model, is another false interpretive key that the artist pretends to offer us. Peter Kogler is certainly not obsessed with the order Hymenoptera, for in this case he could also concern himself with bees and wasps. What interests him is ants as archetypes, fictional beings, positive or monstrous, based on a species that is considered by specialists as an example of successful resistance to evolution.

When Kogler makes a presentation of successive images of his work over time (whetherin situ or in the studio), one is struck by the contrast between the minimalism of the work and the gigantism of its realization. Few artists today are able to “inhabit” such monumental spaces with such apparent facility. However large the scale, however complex the materialization, the artist’s pleasure seems to grow with the challenge.

The papers (“Silkscreen print on paper”, as they are described in the technical documents) covering the whole space, like the ones displayed in the residual space of the Friedricianum left empty by Bruce Nauman at documenta IX in 1992—Kogler’s first truly brilliant act—or those at the Vienna Secession in 1995 which turn the architecture around completely, have attracted much commentary. Peter Kogler is looking for a space in which signs no longer have the character of images, but instead produce an inexplicable effect. As he himself wryly says, museums have often considered him the ideal artist to do up a stairwell…
The curtains (“Jacquard fabric,” for the Piazza San Marco in 1993) allow for a different kind of relationship to space, as do the projections. The trilogy tubes-ants-brains has been considerably expanded, since the artist refuses to be pigeonholed (that hatred of ornament again). For the record we mention the multiform networks, or the new forms developed in 2008 for the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, where the exteriority of the spaces invites one to plunge into the depths of the structure.

Undoubtedly, wallpaper remains the technique of preference, for it allows the image to “cover” several meanings: it can cover everything, but it can also be covered by works or by other papers, as in the exhibition at the Geneva Mamco in 2007. Image, but also architecture. Projection surface, but also content. It is a skin that shows something towards the exterior, an imbrication of the interior and exterior. Similarly, the fitting together of these “patterns” always seems to hover between microscopic vision and macroscopic sensation. The body is caught in a labyrinthine relationship between a physical place and a virtual space. Ami Barak was one of the first to point out the importance of the labyrinth in Peter Kogler’s work.#5#

Always at the ready, Peter Kogler savors the gravity of an immense and endless labyrinth, reminding us of our childhood anxieties. There is a feeling of oppression, looking for a door to freedom. It is impossible to distinguish the beginning or the end, the finite or the infinite, the past or the future. The artist has perfectly integrated the paradoxes of human intelligence. Peter Kogler creates dream images that he incites us to interpret through the lens of our own lives. By exaggerating signs and decors, he provokes a spiral of personal interpretation, between dream and reality, fiction and everyday, life and death…

In the labyrinth, the infinite line can also represent the “life-death-life” passage that we are not necessarily conscious of and that can spread itself in all directions and cover entire surfaces. Even the most simple labyrinth form has deep meaning: the idea of repetition, a representation of the archetype of life-and-death as a whole. Before Theseus and the Minotaur, the origin of the labyrinth is even more remote and probably harks back to prehistory, but it also runs to the motifs and meanders on the pavement of certain churches, also know as the “Jerusalem Way”, that the faithful follow on their knees to Lucca, Chartres or Sens, as demonstrated by Károly Kerényi (1897-1973) in his 1941 essay Labyrinth-Studien: Labyrinthos als Linienreflex einer mythologischen Idee.#6#

Kerényi’s analysis goes beyond the summarization and spiritualist interpretations of the labyrinth as a representation of man lost, losing himself as he searches for self-knowledge, or those that simply consider the labyrinth as an illustration of the realm of the dead. Kerényi begins by noting the frequent association between the labyrinth and the spiral, whose common characteristic is to trace a within and a without. He then brings in dance, evoking Theseus, the inventor of the “Geranos” dance that reproduced the path out of the labyrinth and saved the life of his young compatriots. Thus the labyrinth is as much spectacle as space.

Myth may remain a mystery whose resolution is not essential. It cannot be resolved as a problem but must be treated in relation to ideas.

Throughout his career Peter Kogler has been searching for a simplification, a paring down of his interpretation of myth, integrating individuality, abstraction, figuration, technology. Without ever denying his visual repertoire, the corpus combines several levels of interpretation. The use of forms evolves along its own progression, sometimes seeming completely—and falsely—arbitrary.

#1# Adolf Loos, Ornament and crime: selected essays, New York 1998, p. 167
#2# Ibid., p. 168
#3# David Batchelor, “many colored objects placed side by side to form a row of many colored objects,” in: Lawrence Weiner, London 1998, p. 74–83.
#4# Undated to respect the artist’s intentions and presented for the first time in 1991 at Dia Foundation, New York; presently in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
#5# Ami Barak, “Peter Kogler, Daedalus-like in the of the 20th century labyrinth”, in:Peter Kogler, cat. Kunsthaus Bregenz, Bregenz 2000, p. 17
#6# Roughly translated, the title in English would be “Labyrinth Studies: Labyrinthos as the Linear Reflection of a Mythological Idea”. This essay is the last text written by the author in Hungary before his emigration to Switzerland in 1943. Republished in Károly Kerényi, Humanistische Seelenforschung, Stuttgart 1996. Two other translations exist; the Italian Nel Labirinto (Turin 1983) and the Portuguese edition Estudos de Labirinto (Lisbon 2008). It was this most recent publication that incited me to plunge into the works of this friend and collaborator of Carl Gustav Jung.